3D printers are crucial to most successful product development projects. They can make strong parts in just hours, and can build parts over night while designers and engineers rest. While it is obvious that 3D prints are well suited to making prototype parts for consumer products made of plastic, there are a few other applications and materials that are lesser known.
Here are a few things that you may not have realized you could make with a 3D printer:
3D Print Metal
While consumer level printers primarily print plastics, there are professional machines that can make 3D prints from metal. Most consumer 3D printers work by driving plastic filament through a heated head that melts the plastic as the print head moves to form the object. They are basically a motorized hot glue gun. This is easy to do with the relatively low melt temperatures of PLA and ABS, but there are significant technology hurdles to doing this with molten metal. So, most metal 3D printers use a process called direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) which uses a laser to melt a fine metal powder to create the layers. DMLS is available with a variety of materials including aluminum, bronze, stainless steel and titanium, and is able to produce parts that are over 99% as dense as an equivalent volume of billet material. While the process can be pricey, small parts like jewelry or small gears with low material volume can be printed through many 3D printing services for reasonable prices.
3D Print Fetuses and Baby Bumps
It is now possible to get 3D prints of your unborn child from ultra sound data. Traditional ultrasounds emit high frequency sound waves into the womb and the reflected sound data is converted into an image. The waves are emitted in a plane, so the image is 2 dimensional. However, 3D ultrasounds emit the sound waves at different angles and a computer algorithm triangulates the reflections to create an image that looks 3D. These have been around for while, but recently a firm called 3D Babies has created a site where you can upload the 3D ultrasound data and order a 3D print of it. You can pick your position, skin color, and one of two sizes, and they will send it to you in a wooden box.
Another way to capture the magic of pregnancy is to 3D scan and print the pregnant belly. Many pregnant women take selfies at weekly intervals during pregnancy, and 3D scanning is a natural extension and a lot less creepy than ultrasound imaging. I did this while my partner, Kerry, was pregnant just a couple of months ago. I used a 3D Systems Sense scanner and scanned her belly. Then I did some light editing in the Sense software and made a 3D print on my Printrbot.
3D Print Medical Devices and Implants
The applications of 3D printing for in the medical field are growing every week as doctors are finding new ways of applying the technology. Dentists have been using 3D technology for years to make retainers and other orthodontia. However, 3D printing is being used more and more for implantable devices to make complicated surgeries easier. Recently doctors in China did a vertebrae replacement surgery with 3D printed titanium parts. The patients damaged vertebrae was scanned and the doctors were able to design a custom replacement that matched up perfectly to the undamaged part of the spine. There are also many applications for wearable 3D printed medical devices like custom scoliosis braces and wrist guards.
3D Print Clothes
Wearables are another high growth category in 3D printing. Most of the innovation in the space is being driven by fashion designers. As they learn the technology and its capabilities, they are coming up with new ways to improve the form, fit, and feel of 3D printed garments. One of the most innovative clothing designs is the Kinematics dress that was created by Nervous System in Massachusetts. The dress features thousands of interlocking plastic 3D print pieces snapped together. The result is a garment the flows and moves with the body like a fabric.
3D Print Camera Gear
Just about every hobby that requires equipment can be enhanced with 3D printing. Photography is very gear-centric and there are plenty of ways to enhance your photography capability with 3D printing. With the popularity of DSLR video on the rise, there are a lot of 3D printed parts to help. There are microphone stands, panning dollies and even shoulder rigs that can be built from a mixture of 3D printed and aluminum parts. While these are interesting, my favorite camera accessory to print is a bokeh filter. Bokeh is the intentionally out of focus background of photos with a narrow depth of field. Normally the shape of the bokeh is circular or slightly polygonal due to the shape that the aperture blades make when they come together. However, the shape of the bokeh can be changed by adding a filter to the front of the lens and can create some cool effects. I made a heart shaped bokeh filter 3D print on my Cube 2 printer and took a picture of a batch of roll of Christmas lights to show the effect.
3D Print Yourself
Printing products and parts is neat, but it is also possible to create personalized prints of you, or your friends and family. One of the coolest ways to do it is the 3DMe service from Cubify.com, which allows you to put your face on a number of different bodies including sports stars, Ghostbusters, Star Trek and even brides or grooms. All you do is upload photo of a face, choose the body, and they print the model for you.
The world of 3D printing is ever-changing. There are many different types of printers, technologies and new applications being created for them every day. Some require high end machines and professional grade equipment, but there are some neat things that can be done with a commercial grade printer or ordered through a printing service. Hopefully these techniques inspire your next 3D printed project.